Lexicon of Urban Edmonton Ices – By Robert Clinton

A Lexicon Of Urban Edmonton Ices

This is not a scientific study. It’s a whimsical game with serious intent played while cycling our Winter’d streets. It kept attention on the nature of the surface over which the bike’s wheels were spinning. Some of the observations below were acquired through direct experience “touching the floor”, as they say in le Tour.

Through fourteen years cycling year-‘round, ice conditions began to coalesce into recognizable categories; some last for weeks during a season, some only part of a day but they appeared year after year.

The techniques discussed here are not CanBike approved. I have taken the course from an excellent instructor. We were going to talk about riding in Winter but never got around to it. The chapter in the book Effective Cycling is short and written by an angry man who never rode a six-month winter.

There’s no point in getting angry at Winter.

In every season I cycle mostly on side streets, rarely on major arteries. I use bike paths when they’re where I’m going (and clear of snow). I ride the river valley often in three seasons and whenever I can in Winter. I’m often with two panniers loaded with groceries or a musical instrument on my back, an amp bungied to the rack. I’ve never owned a car nor a license to operate same.

I’m old and very cautious in this season of cold and long nights. Younger cyclists go zooming by, upright on skinny tires, more confident than I. In a dark of night while walking gingerly up the always slippery dip in the path beside the Pyramids I heard whoosh whoosh behind and was passed by a younger man cycling up the ice-coated rise, a feat I’d never achieved — the sound of his tires showed they weren’t studded. My helmet’s off to that guy. He would write a completely different essay than this one. He would reaffirm and perhaps teach that miracles of skill are possible. But not by me.

I ride in Winter because I choose to. I’ve got no alternative other than public transportation but can’t see myself sitting inactive amid the cell phone chatter for that long. I cycle in Winter because I genuinely enjoy it.

So: if this old guy can cycle year ‘round. . .?

Nothing here is meant to discourage anyone from taking up Winter cycling. Rather the opposite. There’s a learning curve, yes, but you’ve done more difficult things than taking your cycling skills in a new direction. Learning to pedal a bike in the first place, for instance. And who among us doesn’t need more exercise through the months that begin with a Thanksgiving banquet, pass through Christmas wassail, New Year’s roistering, to end with Easter feasting with shorts/swimsuit season ahead.

The guidelines for Winter cycling are much the same as for the three other seasons. Only slower. Because some things can happen faster.

On a bicycle it’s the unknown up ahead, quickly changing circumstances that get one in a quandary. The more one knows the more one knows. In the constant flow of looking into the near, middle, and long distances early recognition of road conditions is early preparedness. Listening to the sound of the tires, learning the music of Winter roads is a direct way to know what’s going on beneath you. Your butt is a reliable sensor of the bicycle’s relationship to road conditions and your centre of balance: pay attention to its feedback.

The basic skills to hone are a cool head and fine-tuned balance.

And going slowly.

The “destination” in this adventure into appreciating Winter and her special beauties is accumulating knowledge within your body and mind through experiencing the season’s conditions, thereby adding to your successes keeping the (studded) rubber side down.

You have to put wheels on the conditions to know how to do what you have to do to keep moving forward upright. Practice makes stability.

This catalogue of Edmonton’s Winter cycling conditions is an inventory toward being safe.

Everything below assumes you’ve prepared a bicycle specifically for Winter’s wily ways. With the prices of available EBC bicycles and the seemingly higher number of months of Winter each year, a dedicated winter bicycle is a good investment. You’ll find a volunteer at either shop and she’ll be ready to help you through finding the bike and the build.

And what are the qualities of such a machine?

There are many resources on the Net to educate us about Winter cycling. One of the friendliest and best is specifically for us: Edmonton’s and EBC’s Keith Halgren at his blog ravingbikefiend.com. He explains the gear, the bike, and the mind set clearly and with style.

Keith MacIssac’s blog (https://tuckamoredew.wordpress.com/) features many stories and beautiful photos of his experiences with snow, ice, and cold. Even lyrics to a song!

There’s also a charming, several years old (trolley busses in the streets) sampler video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhEW-45yi6k) about Winter riding created and shot here in Edmonton. Some cool shots inside an early EBC , plus a happy demonstration of how to commute and work a job in a big office building.

So. We’re dressed in layers, our bike’s set up for the season, we step out of the house and who do we meet?

Say hello to our friendly companion. . .

Ice: a capricious Dancing Partner

Noun: Water which falls from the sky as liquid or frozen crystals that, once on the earth, changes into the solid form of its three states due to temperatures below 0C, melt/freeze cycles, heat and moisture from vehicle exhaust, and compression from those vehicles.

Ice” for this lexicon means road ice found in greater Edmonton urban areas. Ices such as. . .

Window Pane

Thin, Jack Frost sunrise ice spanning an airspace above small puddles from late Autumn showers, perhaps also found on the last meltings of early Spring. It doesn’t last through the morning. Fun to gently shatter or stomp through on the way to school. No big threat to cyclists but a cool snap crackle as you pedal through.

Autumn’s First Ice. A gentle harbinger of ices yet to come. October’s browned leaves lie in the streets, but in their asphalt heart those paths know there’s nothing to hold back the oncoming Main Event: Winter, with the panoply of ices she layers.

There is no single road ice, it takes many forms and qualities, often many varieties within several slow spins of the cranks. It often begins as snow. Many years the life cycle of ice begins as late Autumn/too early Winter freezing rains, always a treat, and a slippery foundation for further challenges to accrue as the season advances. For ice and compacted snow will rise above curb height.

Verb, as in: if water falls to earth as liquid and then ices we get. . .

Glacé (Glass A)

French for ice. Elemental ice, one hard step down from liquid. It maintains the visual appearance of its fluid state though a radically transformed solid. Often quite thin, to bicycle tires it presents a close to perfect frictionless substance.

The reason to afford store-bought titanium studded tires or attend an EBC tire-studding workshop.

The reason to be care full.

Glacé forms from rain or melted snow/ice that freezes before contamination by grit or mud. It can appear as ripples of crystal mountain stream in stasis or glistening sheet glass. Looks pretty.

There was an ice I’d never seen before in last November’s early Winter: vast areas of thick, clear Glacé flecked with grit that lasted for weeks, upon which the rest of the season built her variations on themes. Nice to know beneath day-to-day fluctuations there lies in wait the slipperiest of ices. Might as well get one’s balance fine-tuned at the beginning of the season.

Glacé is regenerated throughout its life cycles by melt/freeze conditions. Fresh challenges daily. As the season evolves many dirtier Glacés form, riddled with sand and gunk. Some are still slippery or slidey. Some hold so much crap they’re higher friction, easily rideable.

What to do about it.

We have to be realistic: conditions are going to change however they want, whenever they want; there’s nothing we can do about it. Except spin our calm, focused responses to Mother Nature’s inevitable whims. Decide not to cycle? A valid, common-sense option. Some times Winter’s bigger than all of us, like early 2011 with its endless deep days of snows.

With let’s-look-at-this-as-fun glasses on it is possible to ride a return route to a destination once in the morning and again in the evening, pausing at the destination for several hours each time and at home in between, to find each of the four legs of the trip over the same route to be over very different conditions.

So one might admit that riding the same routes in Summer, though able to go as quickly as one’s spirit feels the need and traffic laws allow, can get boring from lack of change and challenge. Therein lies a continuing growth of happy achievement, constantly bettering your skills. For, above all, Winter cycling is fun — beyond the adrenaline suffused exhilaration of “I can’t believe I survived cycling over that!”.

Ice from rain shows up from time to time in Autumn and Spring. It covers everything. Most Winter ice we face forms only on roads and grows from. . .

Snow: the Ice Mother.

There are many kinds of snow, both while falling through the air and how it changes once on the ground.

It’s possible to ride through almost all snowfalls while they’re falling. Even when it’s Plaster, burning horizontally into your face, wet and sticky enough to clog brakes and fenders. Stop from time to time to brush away accumulated snow and pedal on with a great yarn to relate. Cycling in snowfall is a matter of your experience level, how much you’re willing to put up with, how much adventure you’re happy with, or how important it is for you to get where you need to go.

The loveliest of all snows is. . .

Cloud 9

A deep, up to the hubs fall of powder on paved roads. Maybe a First Snow, easily perceived as romantic while coming home at night. The city quiet under deep white, soft flakes dancing in your headlight, the roads to yourself (everyone else is at home dreading the coming sidewalk shoveling). Cloud 9 days never seem to be deeply cold. Maybe the Cold’s all going into snowmaking.

Cycling Cloud 9 is flying; smooth, soft, silent. A blindingly obvious sign of Winter, but while it’s falling and for the time it’s left to itself and the right amount of cold to keep it fluffy, it’s a sweet ride like no other.

This same powder snow, farther into the season, on roads already encrusted with geologic layers of ice ages, is a call to proceed with caution, even when it falls in small quantities. Ninja, a dusting of powder snow on Glacé, is a hidden, sudden surprise, talcum powder on glass. With days, weeks, months of Winter already on the road, the former relaxing, safe glide of wheels through deep snow on clear pavement might wisely be informed with considerable wariness about what lies hidden beneath benign blankets of white. Though conditions are ever changing, utilizing habitual routes gives you a good estimate of what might live under Cloud 9

Try lower gears along with traveling slowly, you might find power transferred to the conditions more efficiently.

Pedestrians, cyclists, trail-walkers and their pets can influence compressed snow conditions and these tracks are mostly found in parks paths, school yards, short-cuts through vacant properties, unshoveled city sidewalks, etc.. The most often seen is. . .


(Thank you Keith MacIsaac for this name.)

Pedestrians are no fools. When it comes to making a path across a field or unplowed stretch of sidewalk by a vacant lot or building they co-operate in an egalitarian, shortest-distance-between-two-points, dare I say a from-each-according-to-their-needs to-each-according-to-their-abilities fashion. They create a single-track, one foot in front of the other path that over time compresses into an irregular but directest route across the space. For those on foot.

This spontaneously generated trail will be as deep as the depth of the fallen and settled accumulation of snow it crosses.

The bottom of this path is narrow, lightly compressed, paved with lumpy bumpy irregular footprints, and is bordered by deep, soft snow.

I can’t ride down that narrow canyon. Footprint lumps keep pushing the front wheel into the deep stuff. Give ‘er a try.

We can get off the bike and walk but who goes into the narrow path?: our feet or the bike’s wheels.

Maybe find another way ‘round.

Snow Conditions (not yet Glacé)

Throughout the Winter there are many kinds of falling snow that aren’t named here: dry, wet, blowing/drifting, etc.. When fresh they influence and sometimes prevent riding but, with time, once on the ground, all snows are prey to altering forces, putty in the hands of Nature and urban life. The two major shapers of cycling qualities and changes are Mother Nature and Internal Combustion Engine Propelled Vehicles.

Crush White (emphasis on the first word)

Once vehicles get working over a road an average fall of Cloud 9 goes through a day/day-and-a-half set of changes under the compressing effects of temperature, vehicle tires and weight, motor exhaust, and drivers’ skills.

The order which different qualities of Crush White appeared this Winter was pretty much the same. With each snowfall the cycle began anew.


A first stage of several centimetres of Crush White can be difficult to get through. Vehicles have started doing what they do. It’s compressed but mealy, hasn’t been compacted to form a more supportive surface. Sometimes, if it’s cold, it’s stiff enough to break and flake like Stale Cake Icing. Sometimes, if it’s warmer, it thickens with moisture, like snowball.

Either way it’s a force to be reckoned with. It can grab a front wheel, not let it through or direct it where you don’t want it to go.

Thick conditions take strong legs — which can cause the bike to veer to the driving foot’s opposite side against the resistant, compressed snow, so it takes strong arms to direct the front wheel. Against thick opposition it can suddenly become a flat rudder taking control of direction. The rear tire can spin without gripping.

Maybe I’m using too high a gear.

Om”, eh?: be One with the Conditions. If they want you to go slow, dial down your inner motor. If they’ll let you go faster, take advantage.

Sometimes it’s just too thick and it means taking to one’s feet until conditions ameliorate. No one likes to push a bike, but there you go: outdoors in the fresh air getting a work out. Bonus.

Grind can be a quality of other snows and ices mentioned later.

When a snow fall is unusually deep, as was the 30 cm. of Cloud 9 on Thursday, March 21st, 2013, it’s just gonna be tough to impossible going ‘til the petroleum propelled Citizenry get to work and vehicles compress the snow into. . .


When the snow is compressed farther, when coherent surface forms, it can be reliable highway for two wheels. The snow reassures us of its fine traction by singing a hiss as tires press down on it. Tires making sound is good, a song of friction. Silence is often ice beneath the rubber.

If we have anything to thank vehicles for, it’s a fine road or alley of Sizzle. It’s great cycling.

Sizzle intones the same melody but at two different pitches from different snow qualities.

Soft Sizzle

A lower pitched hiss from less compressed snow. Found on plowed surfaces that have seen some use but no continued, heavy impact so it’s slowish, higher resistance. If it’s planed flat by, say, the elementary school’s snow plow, it’s a good way to get around. Some back alleys get plowed flat but endure less vehicle traffic, don’t get ruts for a time. For part of the Winter they’re flat, soft sizzle expressways. A great way to get to work and a fine Sunday ride.

Hard Sizzle

Much more compressed snow, almost but not quite ice so it gives up a higher pitched hiss. Can be found on busier side roads in the late afternoon of a light to medium morning snowfall. Will often persist a long time in cold temperatures on side streets with less vehicle traffic. Even when there’s ice in the middle of the road there’s often Hard Sizzle at the side, offering good traction.

Candian Shield

Looks like flying over northern Ontario. Minus trees.

In many neighbourhoods, on side streets that even get plowed, the side of the street for parking doesn’t get cleaned so a low-lying mountain range of packed snow, ice from melt/freeze, black crankcase oil, gunk, chunks of road crap fallen from wheel wells, the detritus of Winter accumulates from the curb to a half metre past parked car width.

Though often bumpy, this is a safe place to ride — there’s Sizzle in them thar hills — because on narrow streets it’s a refuge from that driver who must pass as he’s going Somewhere Important and he’s not happy to be stuck in deep, late season ruts. Sometimes parked vehicles leave little room to pass on their left; cycling along Shield as it slopes down into the ruts on your left is a skill, especially when it ices up.

For, inevitably, Ice will ice.

Snow + Vehicle created Ices


Long-time vehicle compression in -10 and lower temperatures. White ice like a curling rink without the pebble-ing. Can have some low rolling rises along the flow of traffic, but can also be dead flat. Some areas like Meadowlark have it on the roads in vast sheets but the Alberta Avenue environs don’t get it. Might be something to do with being closer to the Equator on the South Side. Or the denser tree cover in older neighbourhoods. Made without shade.

Acts like its name-sake. Can be ridden but never show the front wheel your fear.

If there’s a string of days with consistent low temperatures Bier can settle in and be useable with care. Recent Winters, however, never seem to settle in to a stretch of low temperature days. More often it’s been days of highish temperatures with minus two-digit nights. Melt/freeze cycle, and all that entails for bicycles: ice evolving ices.

Spin Shine

This is the final, most common result of vehicle use, the piece of resistance of urban ices. It can appear in a short time after a snowfall.

If you had been holding off buying or making your own studded tires, this could be the place you decide.

If Glacé is frictionless, Spin Shine is the ceramic bearings of ices. Thanks to our fellow-sharers of the streets and their most common ice-generating haunts.

Internal combustion engine propelled vehicles.


Front-wheel drive drivers’ ruling philosophy?: the only way to get moving on Glass A is to spin the tires ‘til they scream. Audibly. For blocks around. Smell that smoking rubber. Even though the vehicle may not move or moves slowly, this, it has been decided, is the only technique to propel those metal tonnes through an intersection.

This highly regarded and practiced technical skill polishes the corner — where all users of the public streets need to stop, make turns, find a way through cross traffic if the intersection has no lights — to hi-gloss slippery. Over time this can be augmented by fragmented, rutted, pitted uneven, dirty ices enfolding and revealing Spin Shine. An obstacle course of patience-making intricacy.

Some intersections can be transformed completely into a four-way rink of Spin Shine, a thoughtful gift prized by pedestrians as well. Often there’s a value-added feature of rows of Washboard: bump-lines perpendicular to traffic flow, caused by braking.

Good balance, deliberate, slow pedaling, resolute control can traverse Spin Shine. As can walking the bike. It is, after all, an intersection.


Stopping to aid a vehicle driver embedded in snow is an honourable calling open to cyclists in Winter. It helps build good will with those trapped by their transportation. You may end up teaching new driving skills or giving a list of what necessaries to carry in the trunk to make extrication from adverse conditions more successful.

You might open a newly met car-bound soul to the possibility of cycling year ‘round. Maybe even get them to give it a spin. Stranger things have happened.

Idle Shine

This one’s puzzling. Cycle by an elementary school, mid afternoon. School busses and parents’ automobiles sit and idle, waiting to pick up children. For lengthy periods of time.

When I was told internal combustion engine exhaust melted snow into ice on the roads I didn’t believe it. After riding by Spruce Avenue School for 4 winters I get it: a full block of hi-tech, hi-gloss Brier. Maximum slippy right where their children must walk.

Some of those school busses are pretty diesel stinky, too.

Plowman’s Launch

The grooves vehicle wheels wear in road accumulations. Side streets and alleys are their natural habitat but they can escape, roam other thoroughfares. They can get quite deep and tricky to ride. The sides of those ruts can be steep and throw a wheel sideways without notice. I’m not skilled enough (or, shall we admit: not willing to go slow enough) to have fun in them so I head for the Shield.

If you’re heading down one of these canyons and a vehicle is in the same ruts, stop, climb onto the Shield and get out of their way, let them pass. They need both the ruts and often they’re down so deep they can’t get out ‘til the intersection. On a narrow street with parking both sides they’re trapped.

North Atlantic Grey

It looks like Winter ocean.

If there is a string of around 0 light melt days and freezing nights, daytime Sun makes ice sweat a slippery coating. Night temperatures will freeze the melt, re-make ice anew. If there’s some wind to polish it while it freezes it’s a slippery ice but perhaps not as slippery as some. If the cycle of warm days and cold nights continues it can build up, become various hues of grey. Maybe there’s fine dust in the ice that gives it colour and lessens its sliding index a tad.

It’s Glacé. The sweat on these thin layers of ice gleams quite brightly in Sun light, adding to their sense of challenge. They may or may not be as slippery as Spin Shine but safety is as safety does.

Depending on where it’s grown it can have states of riding challenge:

– Calm (flat road, formerly know as Brier, can have small rolls and rises)

– Roller (higher bumps and ruts on un-graded streets)

– Squall (Canadian Shield, untamed back alleys)

Battleship Steel

Dark shards or long plates of sheet ice with irregular, vertical edges. Often partially buried under more recent ice ages, forming immutable bumps and jolts in wheel ruts. Frozen, compressed, melted, frozen, compressed, melted, welded ice; a frigid, Bizzaro world version of making a Samurai sword. Ancient black ice forged by Dwarves in the First Age of Winter.

Fossil Track

The preserved traces of the day’s passages through late-in-the-day Slush puddles. Frozen rock solid overnight, boot prints of pedestrians, wheel tracks of cyclists are preserved in all their splendid, jagged, impossibly random wheel manipulating glory. These bumps and ruts seem the hardest, most unforgiving ice, perhaps due to their irregular path of challenges.

Sewer Pingos

(Thank you Coreen for this name.)

Look up what a Pingo is.

Moisture evaporating around manhole covers ices into a bump around it. Visible during the day, a good reason to have a strong light on the front of the bicycle at night.

. . .ice pensées:

One sunny Silver Skates Festival February afternoon a young man pedaled a bicycle slowly across frozen Hawrelak Park Pond, and was passed by that old guy with his antique strap-on speed skates, crouched low, arms swinging, zipping by him. Skates doing what they do, a bike doing what it can. Both going somewhere.

I realized ice isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, threat-wise.

That cyclist wasn’t showing the wheel any fear. He was chatting to two friends walking beside him. Pootle-ing along.

Conquer Fear, eh?

Easier said than done.

Control Fear? Anticipate its causes and take action to prevent it?

Is there some secret skill or technique?

Absolutely. Go slow. No secret.

Beyond that?

We have to feel it, feel our way our way. Listen to your bum.

Always keep a plumb-bob straight line between your butt and the centre of the Earth to survive I.E.D. (Iced, Extremely Dangerous) conditions. If we make friends with gravity with Gravity we’re doing the best cyclists can to mitigate the effects of ice. Keep yourself and the bike absolute 90 to the horizon line — in the best circumstances ice freezes to that line and, generally, good buddy that it is, with Gravity’s guidance it’ll do its level best to do so in all conditions.

Go, Ice!

This means, though, Winter is the time of not leaning into turns. Or anything else.

Go light on the brakes, which means go slow — which sets up possible, easier stepping out of a fall should, Lord forbid, conditions astound or concentration wander.

This balance can be practiced in warmer seasons. Seek out and ride lines on the path — such as those painted beside the Clairview LRT track or up the middle of Keelor Road. If you “fall off ” get back on the line. You can ride shadows of railings on bridges, the edge of the gutter, the shadows of those over-head wires on the High Level. Rundle Park of a weekday daytime has long stretches of yellow line with few people around. Coming out of Mill Creek Ravine on the paved path just south of the 82nd Ave. bridge is a great incline with yellow stripe all the way up, including a curve to try and keep both wheels on.


It goes without saying that ice on a slope is by far the most mischievous of ices no matter its degree of slipperiness. It sets a bottom beneath your wheel that isn’t the horizon line while the pull of Gravity remains vertical. In effect, you’re leaning even though you may be 90 ramrod straight up from the centre of the Earth. This can be the angled edge of a sheet of ice a few centimeters high, a sloped driveway, the south end shared walkways on the High Level, the sides of ruts.

When faced with a direct slant or an off-camber angle it may be wise to remember that, free with every bicycle, comes a person who has long-practiced walking skills. Don’t be riding down no icy hills on no bald tires. But, then again . . . a sidebar:

Are these “rules”? Earlier I mentioned that guy who passed me on uphill ice. He found ways to overcome laws of Physics I’m only skilled enough to submit to.

The only “rules” are: you’re in charge of your own rules concerning how and what ices you attempt to cross. And. We’re all subject to the Laws Of the Road as set by Edmonton City bylaws. We’re still Vehicles.

To cross a change in level, a change in conditions, do it at right angles. Same rule as for Summer crossing onto bridges with metal edges, over LRT tracks.

The odd thing I’ve found about Winter riding is, generally, the rear wheel takes care of itself in snowy conditions. Side-slips, fish-tails? No problem. I don’t remember “learning” how to do that, survive those sudden swerves. Maybe it’s the weight of a porcine posterior holding things steady. Anyway, it’s nothing I could teach anyone. It just happened.

Ruts, bumps, grit, snow banks, pot-holes, compressions can all be practiced on sunny Summer days by heading to the Valley goat trails. The east side of Mill Creek Ravine. Terwilliger Park. There’s nothing in Winter that’s the identical to cycling over tree roots so you can get more skill than you need — a sign of a healthy safety factor. Cycle the “path to the golf course”.

We’re extremely fortunate to have that wild park so close.

(In Goldbar Park, just before the Aynsworth Dyer bridge over to Rundle there’s a cairn naming the members of the Lougheed government who passed the legislation to make the North Saskatchewan River Valley what we know. Give ‘em a wave of thank you as you ride by.)

Summer rides, with Winter in mind, prep. us for ice.

Ice is existentialism, eh? It’s there, it ain’t gonna go away, at least not right in this instant (we have to have faith it’ll all be gone at least by July). So you have to be who you always are: someone making an honest decision and a commitment in the middle of a question: “How’m I gonna get to work, to school, home through these conditions?”. Be awake. Deal with what is, where you are, safely, within the limits of your ability and wisdom. Do, by all means, try traversing new conditions. Slow is good. Because, upright or flat on your kiester, you live the results.

If you can’t see what’s up ahead slow down or stop until you can.

Get off the bike when your sense of safety says so.

Winter cycling will take more time to reach your destination.

You will get to know from experience what the conditions mean to your ride time when you look out your window before you head out. It’s always a good idea to leave more time. Way more time than your Summer ride times. You’ll get that dialed in, make your appointments on time, then be amazed at how quickly you get around once everything’s melted.

In the meantime, there are possible avenues of higher speed travel. Especially at night when everyone’s inside watching Netflix.


We have to have them cleaned 48 hours after a snowfall. If you live in a residential area populated by fine citizens the sidewalk is the safest (yes, and quickest) way to proceed about your day. Yield to pedestrians, don’t piss them off — you’re sometimes one, too. Walkers are our friends and allies in the conversation about Internal Combustion Powered Vehicles and urban quality of life. Say hello to them, make a wry comment about the weather, share a smile. Ride on.

At night (dark at 16:30 around Solstice) there’s few to see or complain about you and the good time you’re making getting home via la Via di Vehiclelessness.

One sunny January afternoon I rode on a sidewalk and chatted with a Bylaw Officer. He said the interpretation of the no-bicycles-on-the-sidewalks law he was told was “ride where it’s safe”. Which, given the condition of many Winter roads, would be on the sidewalk. Co-incidentally, as he was telling me this I was looking at him and didn’t see a footprint sized patch of Glacé come under my front wheel. Zip: flat on the sidewalk.

Two different ways to learn something useful.

And, most useful?: pay attention.

Melt isn’t just for Spring

Brown Sugar

Chemically induced “melt”.

This is the first, to my knowledge, spontaneously generated name for Winter conditions. A friend says it’s old and comes from out East. Its genesis is obvious from the conditions caused by its creator: “sand”, the City’s dispensed “safety” formula to aid vehicle traction. It’s a black magic, unstable concoction of quicksand, salt, and alchemical thermopotions developed by the CIA to sabotage Moscow traffic during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s banned in many tropical countries that don’t even need the stuff, that’s how bad it is.

I disagree with its use. There’s a single block near here that doesn’t see a speck of it; it’s pure flat, white Brier with Soft Sizzle edges, easy and safe to ride. Until vehicles drag in Brown Sugar on their wheels.

Vehicle drivers are gonna drive fast no matter what conditions, glare ice, bare pavement, or a mushy peas spread of Brown Sugar.

Down to -8-ish Brown Sugar’s a gritty, fluidicasious substance that can’t be good for anybody’s traction. Two winters ago it turned the intersection outside my house into an impassible, vehicle hubcap deep morass, one of hundreds in the city.

Down past -10 Brown Sugar freezes into a flat surface that’s close to Brier (so why use the stuff!?) except for patches (Sugar Pits [thank you Keith MacIsaac]) that don’t freeze no matter what.

It’s unsafe to cycle through amid heavy traffic because it makes the wheels swerve. It fills Plowman’s Launch and adds to the ice often found in the bottom of the ruts.

It rots the bicycle.

The core practice in cycling is have and be in command of as much control as possible. In utilizing Brown Sugar on our public roadways the City is willfully taking that away from us, putting us in danger.

In the meantime: low gears, a knobbly rear tire for traction, practice (it’ll happen just going about your day), ride in low traffic areas. (Yes, there’s less Brown Sugar on the plowed, major arteries but we make a choice and one’s personal decision on side-street vs. major artery has many variables. Vehicles are not my preferred companions on roads narrowed by windrows or snow piled in the gutters on surfaces where they, too, can slip and slide, so, yes, I have chosen to ride Brown Sugar side streets. Put up and shut up, eh?)

I find Brown Sugar ruts easier to ride at right angles, crossing an intersection, say, rather than navigating with the flow of vehicle-created turmoil.

Cookie Dough

Happy day! Brown Sugar can thicken with lower temperatures into a mealy glue even more difficult to get through. Give it some more cold and. . .

Grind Sugar

. . .appears. Brown Sugar Cookie Dough that has “freeze dried”, lost its chemically induced moisture to icing within the matrix of the sand. Definite wheel-grabbing power. Cars coming the other way on narrow side streets often leave no alternative but to end up in the Grind. That’s ok. Put a foot down (the Universal Sign To Drivers that you’ve stopped, aren’t going to maniacally ride in front of them) and wait. Cycle on when they pass.

Grind Sugar can be a sign that temperatures are heading even lower.

A lot of Brown Sugar will eventually freeze solid(er) if it gets cold enough. There’ll be Sugar Pits, small patches lighter in colour, but much of it will be frozen into light brown to beige streaks of kinda Sizzle-y decent riding.

There’s a window of optimum Winter cycling temperatures for each rider but the roads seem to like -12-ish and below. Everything stops morphing between states. Vehicles will continue to polish ice in busy places that aren’t plowed down to pavement by the City (hurrah for the City!), so there are changes to aware of. But. At lower temperatures the bike arrives home dry, free of grit and sand. And there’s nothing like a swig from a water bottle full of winter water at the end of a good ride.

Ye olde, storyed dayes of ye olde stories of temperatures so cold cables snap seem to be Global Climate Changed-ly behind Edmonton. All in all this and last Winter have been mild. Long. But mild, minus single digit temperature days. Which means lots of ices; sometimes broad, sweeping changes from day to day, but few if any -30 to -40 days.

But it’s still cold. Wouldn’t be fun if it wasn’t cold.

It’s up to the individual rider how to deal with the challenges of exercise-induced Winter tsunamis of nasal mucous. I tried once, but decided I’m too old to learn how to snot rocket. That stuff freezes pretty fast on one’s shoulder.


The end times. Back alleys especially. It snows. It gets compressed. Sort of. It goes warm enough to melt, maybe even make some puddles. Deep, compressed snow goes Play-Dough at the right temperature. Cars continue to use the alley. Lordy: heavy, rut-bustin’ garbage trucks, re-cycle trucks. Months of frozen garbage spillings. Deep gouges, pushed waves of sodden snow. Piles of scrapings cleared from garage driveways sagging across the lane. Freeze night. The whole blundered mess preserved. Petrified Fossil Track of a cataclysm.

Find another route and wait for Spring to use alleys to get home. (Alleys are good fair-weather cycling, will often have fewer potholes than streets. Less traffic.)

Spring? Are you sure?

It will arrive. It will. It better. The Sun is rising farther and farther north each morning. Heck, we’re cycling to and from work when it’s light! . . .so why’s it still frozen out there?

There’s much to be said for below -10 winter; it’s easier to ride than the soggy irregularities of Spring. With Melt, come when she may, all the above categories dissolve into cascading, criss-crossing, mis-matched chaos melt/freeze/melt conglomerations. There’re no easy to define borders between states and only one thing for sure: it’s gonna get dirty. All that sand spread on the streets for five months? It’s gotta go somewhere. How about inside your bottom bracket. Lovingly placed by. . .


An above 0 sign that, somewhere at the end of the dark tunnel of long northern nights, Spring is waiting to free streets from their icy bonds. But Madame Winter is a Diva known to dally, making many false exits from the stage.

It ain’t pretty.

The reason fenders are functionally mandatory. It’s all about being a good friend to your bicycle.

The Sun works on the surface of departing Winter, soaks melting rays of sunshine right down to the ground. . .which remains frozen. As do sewer drains. So there’s water water everywhere and nary a place for it to go except to puddles, sloughs, and lakes in the streets and sidewalks.

The Sun warms once solid Sizzle and, eventually, Glacé. Suddenly the bottom falls out of everything and it’s Sloppy Joe, often deep. The months of sand rise up and become mobile on melt water. Water goes where it will with a will and it loves to make friends with any remaining Glacé in the road, increasing its slipperiness. And it welcomes snow with open arms, thickening the roux.

Slush. Water-bourn crystal ice. Mostly white, sometimes with clear water in river valley places and some side roads and sidewalks. But on busy boulevards it’s a noxious brown fluid, a fetid bouillabaisse of crap.

Slush is an highly efficient delivery system of such brake pad, chain, bearing, and cog destroying elements as: dust, grit, sand, small stones, salt, road chemicals, liquid and particulate dog waste from the past months (thanks for this fact, Mr. Halgren, I can barely stomach cycling now), oil, gasoline, snow mold. Coats the bike with same. Makes one want to carry a water bottle with a cover on the nozzle.

Slush comes in infinite gradations but here’s three groups in ascending order of lumpitudity:

Slurpy: lots of water. Very easy to get through though can be quite deep (cycle familiar routes so you’ll have a rough idea what’s below). Soaks rims so they get coated with an ugly layer of dissolving brake pad (rubbing alcohol’s the best cleaner).

Slice: slush on its way to freezing, makes a crackle. It’s thick, can control the front wheel. You can see the trails of cyclists who sliced through before you. A Grind.

Growler: thicker, frozen after dark Slice; a crust. Sometimes stubborn mid-Winter sidewalk ice that’s been carpet bombed with sno-melter late in the day freezes up all pock-market and porous over night. Takes its name from its sound.

However, all in all, compared to the long winter we had this season from the last weeks of October to the last (hopefully) snow on April 29th, Slush Season seems short. But its wearing effects on the bike are quick and drastic. Spend an afternoon at BikeWorks and repack your bottom bracket and rear wheel when dry weather arrives.

Duck Pond

During the day it’s an expanse of muddy water of unknown depth. Experience teaches to not ride through a body of water when the bottom is obscured. Duck Pond may float on a surface of Glacé, lubricating it to a wheel flipping slipperiness. It may hide a very deep pothole. (A pothole on an Edmonton street? You must be joking!)

After a freezing night (say, in front of the ramp to BikeWorks North) Duck Pond hardens smooth, flat, and greybrown. If the temperature stays below 0 for a while bring skates to get into the shop. When it’s above 0 bring a kayak.

The huge amount of snow this year made massive lakes in the streets. If there’s no way around it and it’s big enough to be suspicious and wary of what may lurk in its depths, go back, find another route. Add another couple blocks into the day’s work out. However, if you’ve got high-top wellies and can walk out: give ‘er.

Duck Pond will freeze overnight. If it sprinkles snow overnight (sometimes it seems like the City’s “sweat”, its moisture evaporation will fall back as a light dust of snow) beware of any sudden completely flat patches of undisturbed snow, especially if you’re the first one out on a road in the morning. It’s probably Duck Pond under there: ball bearings on steel plate.

Urban Meteorology

Mini Climates. Micro Climates. Mini-Micro Climates.

There’s the general, over-all weather that’s going on through the city. There’ll be variations in how much of what is happening where, more or less snow here or there, but, within a couple of degrees, the temperature’ll be pretty much the same all over at any moment so there’ll be similar conditions.


Streets = north/south; avenues = east/west.

Streets see more sunshine in Winter. Avenues? It depends.

Coming out of the Valley on a north shore, sun-facing climb is different than on a south shore, shadow shrouded climb.

It doesn’t take much to create a weather system that will impact cycling. It only takes a shadow.

The Sun never even gets too high in the Summer sky this far north. However it will rise and set through north-facing windows at Summer Solstice.

In Winter it rises and sets far south and some days doesn’t get above your neighbour’s house at noon. So there’s a mini weather zone in the house’s moving shadow. During a high minus single-digit temperature day the Sun makes warming changes wherever it falls; in the house’s shadow conditions linger longer in the few degrees lower temperature.

A line of fir trees. A street of apartment buildings or businesses. One two story building. A high fence. A billboard. They’re more than enough to keep a patch of Winter and its effects in deeper cold for a longer time than in a sun-filled street.

Mini climates are visible before you ride through them. Keep an eye on what structures lie to the south, what shadows they throw.

A micro climate forms beside a snow plow’s windrow. One tree. Any small shape that casts a shadow across your path. Though they look too tiny to be consequential they encourage and protect ices.

A micro-mini climate occurs on the bridge over Groat Road on 102nd Ave.. On the north side walk-way low-angle Sun traces an almost flat path across the sky — at least that’s what the line of sidewalk Glacé in the shadow of the bridge’s railing shows. A line of ice about 4 cm. wide in the shadow, the rest of the walk melted bare. Enough to slip a wheel on? Not if you pay attention to the mini and the micro.

Which brings us to . . .

Touching the Floor

Two reasons people stop (or don’t begin) Winter cycling.



There’s nothing anyone should do to dissuade you from choosing to not Winter cycle for the second reason. It’s true: stuff happens.

However. Researchers tell us we’re hard-wired to gradually forget the bad times and remember, look forward to the good times.

And research tells us we can learn, develop new skills, wrest some wisdom from, uh, “adventures”.

Out on the Winter byways and alleys, what the Future holds for the pedal-driven is hidden. Just as there may be pure Glacé around that next corner, unseen, there could just as easily be a block of easy goin’ Hard Sizzle, or, hey, maybe even bare pavement.

One could have us on the floor ready to give away the bike, the other two could have us home in no time flat, vowing to convince friends to embrace Winter cycling.

We don’t know ‘til we ‘round the corner. Whether it’s Glace or smooth sailing, go slow. Don’t go anywhere you can’t see what’s there.

Consciously build more Happy Times.

Happy helps you come back from a wreck. Being happy can be in short supply in this life some times. So one would be wise to ensure there’s more of it, take precautions and plans to keep the non happy-making factors to a minimum. Every trip, build Control. On a bike you can’t get enough.

The biggest step we can take to having fun and being safe is saying yes to Winter.

The biggest step we can take is to admit there’s days when the conditions are beyond our skills or acceptance of cold, and say yes to not cycling.

The biggest step we can take to increase safety is to stop, get off the bicycle, and walk. Get back on when the conditions become something you’re more experienced with.

The biggest step we can take (yes, that’s four “the biggests”) to prevent falls is to travel slowly.

A slow cadence means less forward motion is added to the velocity — hence the impact — of a fall. (I’m just sayin’.)

Going slow means it’s possible to step out of a fall. It’s a dance that moves between the elegant, the clumsy, and the slapstick but one can survive a slow-motion wreck standing. Hopefully in a road not full of swiftly moving vehicles coming behind.

Assuming you’re going slowly. . .

Get a foot down in the direction of the fall. Extend the arm that’s in the direction of the fall for balance. The other hand keeps hold of the bike so you know where it is and don’t have to dance around it, too. If the bike’s making things worse, drop it, maybe giving it a push out of the way. Get stable as soon as you can, hop if you still have forward motion. If you can crouch, put your balance hand on the road to steady yourself. (These aren’t things I practice. They’re just the grasping-at-straws awkward ballet that going slow gives time to try.)

It really helps if your riding boots have non-slip soles.

Stand up and get to the side of the road even if you’re not in traffic. Bring your bike with you.

Catch your breath, calm down. Give yourself then the bicycle a once-over. When you’re back in control, head out again, slowly.

I don’t know how many times I’ve re-vowed to go slowly. And I do do it. ‘til the next time.

There are many cyclists more skilled than I. Many more more careful. In the past I’ve cycled three winters without a fall. A couple tumbles a year lately.

There’s going to be a time, the time, some times. . .it’s gonna happen.

You’ll fall.

But there you go. There we all go. The elephant-in-the-room we share the road with.

Cycling is athletic. Not that we have to go for it like professional athletes who, willingly it seems, risk grave injury in their desperation for victory. We receive great gifts through cycling, the bike is prodigious in bestowing benefits and laughters. In return it makes demands. The biggest is personal responsibility in facing the understanding that it is, when the chickens come home to roost, balancing on two wheels; a narcotic delight.

Well. That’s out in the open now.

We’re functionally naked amid two tonne crushers who would rather, let’s be honest, we were not allowed on the road. Let’s put us all on ice, just to make the dance more involving, and then narrow the roads and narrow daylight down to a handful of hours. On your mark, get set: rush hour.

But we remember the good times. Cycling is flying. That’s a powerful, addictive neurotransmitter, Speed’s aphrodisiac.

Winter is, by its nature, surprise-full. Even the most mindful can be taken unaware by such an ancient and all-wise force.

In all honesty: my falls are self induced. Mostly by giving in to my greed for speed. Going faster than my attention.

I didn’t fall after early January this year. It took that long for me to silence my inner drive to go quickly. I stepped out of everything else after because I was going slow. That includes cycling over all the above mentioned conditions. Except Ragnarock.

If you fall I feel you should have prepared for it long ago by wearing a helmet. See other places about the helmet/no helmet arguments. If you have the presence of mind to lift your head opposite the direction of the fall, that will help. But falls are often so quick there’s no time to think. We’re often sticking out hands, arms, risking injury. If the fall was at slow speed then our chances of arising injury free rise.

So: you’re on the “floor”.

If you’re on a busy street covered in the ice that downed you what the heck were you doing on a busy street.

Think about it.

A surface that slipped you up can do what to cars? Can they stop for you? I believe we all hope so. But who’s to know.

If you’re on a busy street, no matter what condition you’re in, you must get off the road immediately. If you’re down, some advocate rolling yourself to the side of the street as the quickest way to get out of the way of wheels. Walk if you can, drag/pull you bike if you can or leave it to the mercy of braking motorists.

You see: it’s all about how important it is for you to get to your destination at what time. That’s what shapes your risk factors: the decisions you made before you left. If your skill handling the conditions isn’t up to the conditions: 1) – leave earlier to go slower on your chosen route; 2) – find another route (and leave earlier).

It’s that unavoidable, omnipresent existential thing. It is what it is. It’s Winter. That can’t be changed.

We, however, can adapt. It’s all Learning. There’s no time on a bicycle when it isn’t.

Back to our fall, already in progress. . .

If you’re not on a busy street, if there’s no traffic, if you’re on a path, stay there ‘til the stars stop whirling before your eyes, your breathing slows down, the adrenalin rush ebbs some. Breathe, take any messages you’re getting from your body, check all systems to see if everything’s in one piece and where it should be. Sit still, breathe. Wait. Breathe.

In Summer we’d be checking for road rash. In Winter we may not see it ‘til we get home and change out of riding gear but a fall can give us clothing burns, harsh sudden friction of garments on skin. Give it the same treatment recommended for road rash. One up side is not having to pick grit out of the wound.

When you feel calmer, get up from the bicycle, walk a few steps, double check what condition your condition is in.

Go back to the bicycle, get it on its wheels and move it to the curb if you’re on a street. Check possible damage. If you fell to the right, check your rear derailer, see if it’s bent, if the hanger’s still straight. Has your handlebar moved? Anything rattling, anything broken, pieces knocked off. You might have to say goodbye to that carton of milk flooding your pannier.

Walk the bicycle for a while, further still your body’s reactions. Listen to the bicycle if it needs to complain.

Don’t kick yourself. There’s no way you can run around behind yourself fast enough to accomplish it. Even if the spill is your “fault”. If you’re walking away you’re walking away with an education.

Maybe even some wisdom.

That may help you decide if you’re going to keep Winter cycling.

It’s your decision and it’s the right one. Don’t let anyone lay a negative on you because you hang up the bike from first snowflake to last puddle.

But. . .

. . .consider getting back on the bike before you decide. Sure, today, in the aftershocks of a fall walk all the way home. But. Hey. You were doing real good before time pressures, the conditions, distractions befell you. The skills you had are still there. So are the benefits of your work-outs while traveling. And so is the fun. The fun’ll always wait for us to show up ready. Being careful is part of being ready. Take a spin on an easy route before the bike goes in the basement. See if ready isn’t already waiting for you.

I don’t have the stats but I would hazard a guess that more people are more seriously injured in automobiles and ATVs in Winter than cyclists. A lopsided sample: there were a hundred people injured on the highways in March’s 30 cm. snow fall, there was a 100 vehicle pile-up on the Q.E.. That night at BikeWorks North five volunteers showed up, all of whom arrived and got home safely — one cycling far into the West End. Ok, one walked and one drove, but, hey, 100%’s a good survival rate I’d say.

The cycling “glass” isn’t half full or half empty. Cycling is so bursting with good offerings to us it’s a second, heck, maybe even a third glass.

Given a chance, that half empty glass we’re staring at may fill up, too, if we keep cycling

Cherchez le Velo en Hiver

None of the above is meant to frighten anyone from Winter cycling.

Most of the above challenges are only so if one isn’t paying attention. So pay attention. I keep forgetting to tell myself that — and even that’s not good enough: one has to be Attention. The drag is it means one can’t get too involved in the magic of being on a bicycle, get carried away by living the beauty of two spinning gyroscopes and the lines they craft across the land and time. But. The benefits of mindful concentration in a day, every day, have been known for millennia. Cool. A trip to 99 Supermarket makes one smarter.

And the bicycle has always been known to be a peace bringer.

Winter cycling is a meditation.

It’s a great work-out.

Slow down. Dial down your inner Cadence Clock.

Keep your eyes on the road near and far.

Re-consider your routes, scope out new, safer ones according to the conditions.

Pay attention to what your butt is telling you about what the bike travels over and where your centre of gravity is.

Listen to your tires. They’ll sing you the truth.

Listen to the sound of traffic around you.

On the other side of your door’s the exhilarating challenge of a constantly changing terrain. You don’t have to travel to Whistler; just get groceries, go to work, see a movie at Metro Cinema, ride with friends, make more friends if your friends are stay-at-homes.

There’s slow spins around your neighbourhood. Lots of plowed trails in the Valley — a fine way to while away a Christmas afternoon.

Spin even a couple of blocks from your house you’ll be warmer than anyone waiting at a bus stop freezing their hands texting.

Granted, there’s some investment of investigating and purchasing ways to keep hands and feet warm. (Pogies rock!) There’s prepping a bike for the season — going to BikeWorks North or South and building your own, dedicated Winter bike. Getting lots of lights and reflectors.

Granted, vehicles are scary. They never look meaner and more menacing than speeding dangerously to make that red light in a dark December Friday rush-hour traffic jam, motors roaring in a headlight-lit miasma of exhaust fumes.

Don’t cycle their domain. Leave that for the other three seasons.

Alleys and sidewalks are made fine highways by the good citizens of our Winter City 48 hours after a snowfall. Shovel your walk, spread the good avenues. Yield to Pedestrians while traversing their territory. Talk to them. That’s a huge opportunity we cyclists have the car-bound don’t. We can pass on to a stranger our love for the magic possible where others fear the Cold. We can tell them about the difference between “going” — driving — somewhere and journeying somewhere. Sometimes not even somewhere, just journeying to experience the never-ending friendship, the partnership with a bicycle.

Winter cycling puts you in Winter instead of against it. It makes an amiable friend of Cold because you meet it equipped with a saddle-mounted internal combustion heater. Feed that heater healthy fuel.

Fool around in Winter but don’t fool around with Winter. Respect her. Take precautions.

Cycle all year and you’ll never have to go through the pain in the butt of Springtime first ride back on the saddle.

Cycle home in the long night

quiet neighbourhoods quite still

-14C stars dust ebony above

white bright full moon

flowing through

spaces between street lights




Rabbits run ahead then stop still

so we won’t see them

though they don’t know

on open road instinct

puts them in plain sight



they marvel at the smiling cyclist

crafting lines so elegant

the snows sing along

They’re a sign of good luck for cyclists

. . .well, mostly good luck for the rabbit

still with all her lucky feet.

Arrive home happy.

From an adventure, a physical conversation with the brisk heart of Nature.

The cost of a safe winter bike and its maintenance, efficient clothes, a good helmet, some lights, a reflective jacket. Continual, ever evolving practice and skill. A community of folks just as “crazy” as you.

The fun’s for free.

Go get some.



3 thoughts on “Lexicon of Urban Edmonton Ices – By Robert Clinton

  1. I conjured this strange vision while reading the entire snow-cycling post: I would like to go back in time a bit and follow the author with a video camera as he cycles out past the city limits of Concord on a black snowy night with a fairly serious snowfall in progress. We’ll follow his bike tracks in the snow out along the causeway built for the railway and then onto the narrow snow covered path through the woods to Walden Pond. We’ll stay on the path to the lonely cabin of one H. D. Thoreau. I just think these two fellows would find in each other a kindred spirit. I’ll fix the video camera onto a tripod, light some candles, help make some tea, move my chair near the fire, and settle in for the evening’s conversation.


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